Rather our qualification comes from God, who has indeed qualified us as ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter brings death, but the Spirit gives life. Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, was so glorious that the children of Israel could not look intently at the face of Moses because of its glory that was going to fade, how much more will the ministry of the Spirit be glorious.2 Cor. 3: 6-7
“Do not think I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. Amen, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.”Matthew 5: 17
The readings for weekdays in Ordinary Time are determined merely chronologically, so there is no intended connection between the two. Today, however, by coincidence there is a relationship of tension between the two readings that can result in a case of spiritual whiplash. In 2 Corinthians Paul speaks of the Law as “the letter of death.” In Matthew 5, Matthew has Jesus saying that “not the smallest part of a letter will pass from the law, until all things have taken place.” Now for the fundamentalist this would have to pose a problem. Both of these teachings, if literal and absolute, could not express the true teaching of Jesus, as they appear to contradict each other. Yet, it is also possible that as Paul and Matthew are attempting to describe and to reflect on their experience of Jesus, they are but focusing in on different aspects of the Mystery of God as revealed in Christ.
Somehow or other Google figured out that I read news stories related to the Church. So, they have begun to feature on my home page links to news stories about the horrors of Pope Francis from some websites with a clearly more “fundamentalistic” Catholic bias. From what I can see, there is a fairly strong movement within the Church to brand Pope Francis as heretical and even as illegitimate. There is a certain apocalyptic strain in these writings, as if Pope Francis would bring down the Church single-handedly. Their basic problem with him seems to be that they find him lax in his upholding of the theological and moral doctrines of the faith. They seem to fear that should the law be understood as a path rather than as the goal that the Church will become meaningless and untrue to its call.
I wonder if a similar question was not on the minds of the members of Matthew’s community. Today’s reading is the introduction to Jesus’ teaching that we call the “Sermon on the Mount.” As we well know, the “beatitudes” are the very heart of Jesus’ teaching, but they are teachings of a different order. In truth they are “in practice” unrealizable in full, and yet they point the way to transformation, of individual lives and potentially of the entire world. Unlike the commandments, they are not, in the first place, behavioral. Rather they are a summons to a new heart and a new mind, to the taking on of “the mind of Christ.” They are not “replacements” for the law, but are rather the way to its fulfillment. And, they are also universal. Jesus does not say “Blessed are the Catholics, or the Jews, or the Muslims, or the Hindus, or the Buddhists, or the non-believers.” Rather he says, “Blessed are the pure of heart, the meek, the peacemakers, those who suffer for righteousness’ sake.”
A distinguishing mark of the Jesus of the gospels is that he is always pointing to his Father. He explicitly tells his disciples that he is “the Way” to the Father. He is not the end but the Way. At times I wonder when it happened that the Church came to see itself as the end and not as the means, as the object of adoration rather than the seeking and praying community on the way. It is not the Church but God whom we are to love with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. When Pope Francis says that there is truth in other traditions who seek God by somewhat different paths, he is merely repeating the teachings of Jesus in the gospel. He is not diminishing the Church, but rather properly relativizing it.
Yesterday I was reflecting on my experience of the novitiate, of my first years in religious life and of the sense of relief I felt at that time. As I was, in part at least, seeking to escape what I felt both shameful and unmanageable in my life, living by the rule was actually comforting and reassuring. Living by “the law,” which was our rule of life, was not necessarily easy, but it did provide for me a sense of coherence in my life that I had lacked. As I pointed out yesterday, however, this form of relief from my anxious self came at a cost. The musical Fiddler on the Roof has always spoken to me. in the earliest stage of my religious life, I could very much identity with what Tevye says in his opening monologue: “And because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is, and what God expects him to do.” So, at age 18, I “knew” who I was as I never had before, and I felt that I need not worry about who I was to be in the future, for tradition, “the law,” spared me that effort and inner conflict.
At a point, however, I experienced what St. Paul writes: that “the letter of the law,” if we attempt to live by it exclusively, brings death. It is important to note that all of this is not meant to be “anti-traditional” or to suggest the insignificance of the law. As Jesus says in Matthew, “I have come not to abolish but to fulfill the law.” That fulfillment of which Jesus speaks is of a “life to the full” that cannot come from observance of the law but only from the reception of it as a gift from God. I cannot work myself or obey myself into the life and fulfillment that is the gift and promise of Jesus.
Some years ago we had a provincial who seemed to some to be a poor leader because he would encourage brothers to seek new ways of serving and living. In their view, he did not give clear enough direction and guidance. Yet, he gave space to the uniqueness and creativity of others out of the conviction expressed by the great teacher Gamaliel in Acts 5: 38: “For if their purpose or activity is of human origin, it will fail. But if it is from God, you will not be able to stop these men; you will only find yourselves fighting against God.” This leader was, on the personal level, the most faithful of religious to the rule and to the duties of our life form. Yet, his faith was not in the rules and structures but in the Spirit of a God who was always creating anew, and in ways that are often very different from ours.
At the heart of the Way of Jesus is this teaching:”Whoever tries to keep their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life will preserve it.” (Luke 17: 33) To live in God and by the Spirit means that we do not grasp or hold on to any of our own forms, of our own life and even of our own Church. We have just lived through the celebration of the mystery of the death, resurrection, ascension, and sending of the Spirit. Jesus makes clear to his disciples that even he must go if the Spirit is to come.
The way of Torah, of the Law, is a great gift of God to humankind, as is the gift of the Church. But they are not God. The form our own lives have, our sense of ourselves as good, as just, as law-abiding, as safe, etc. are “nothing to be grasped at.” (Phil. 2: 6) As great a help along the way as any tradition or path is, it is not the end or the goal of our seeking. Because it is the human way, we shall always try to make our own creations and means the end that we seek. It is sheer illusion to put our trust in human creations, even those human creations we ignorantly attribute to God. Revelation does not come to us unfiltered by our own needs, fears, desires, and cravings. Primary among these is our desire and need for security.
So we tend to hate those who disturb that security. in this light, it is little wonder that Pope Francis evokes such reaction. As Pope John XXIII before him, he dares to call on us to open our minds and hearts to the world rather than to build a fortress of defenses against it. As our former congregational leader, his trust is in God and not, as the Psalms remind us, in princes (even “princes of the church”). To trust God is also to have a level of humility in terms of trusting ourselves. And this is the place of tradition and the Law. None of us as individuals can accumulate in a single lifetime the wisdom of centuries old traditions. For there to be the possibility of a full human life, we must be formed in those traditions, we must follow the Law until it is fulfilled. But, we must also do so in the light of a Spirit that pervades the world and that we know only from entering deeply within, as well as in the rules and norms of the tradition. Adrian van Kaam says that for a tradition to flourish it must be “uniquely appropriated by its adherents.” Of course, there is potential “danger” in this. We live on the razor’s edge between lifeless conformity and personal delusion. But that is the edge of life, of the presence and workings of the Spirit, which we discover both in the “spirit of the law” and the Spirit of life both within and around us.
Most of us have not tried knocking on the door that Jesus is talking about. We are content to spend all our time exploring the outside of the house. The lawn, the trees, the trellis and the porch swing receive all our attention, so that we never even get inside, never seek out the One who is waiting there. We turn our cottage into House Beautiful, paint it and repaint it, but never so much as knock on the door.Eknath Easwaran, Words To Live By
Not only are we not looking for anybody inside, we are convinced that no one is there. If there is a God, we think he is surely outside, as is everything else that catches our attention. Vaguely, fondly even, we may sometimes imagine as we go about our business that Someone is probably keeping an eye on us. But if we will open our ears, we can hear the murmurings from within, the faint stir and rustle of a presence deep inside of us, and a voice hauntingly beautiful. Once we hear that, we will pound on the door with all our might, so that we can enter and meet the One who has been waiting so long.